Mar 5, 2007
Two recent movies made by Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, tell the story of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II – one from the American viewpoint, the other from the Japanese.
Flags of Our Fathers bears the same title as a book written by James Bradley. The author’s father, John Bradley, was one of the six soldiers who were photographed raising the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.
The movie’s title certainly has a patriotic ring to it. And there is little, if anything, in the movie that challenges the official American view of WWII – that it was basically a “good war,” fought against aggressive, expansionist dictatorships in Europe and the Pacific. Yet, in telling the stories of individual soldiers, the movie calls into question many of the myths about the way the U.S. fought the war.
Three of the six soldiers in the picture were killed within a week of the flag-raising. The surviving three were brought back to the U.S. and sent on a tour across the country to help sell war bonds. The movie shows how these three young men – still in their early twenties – suffer, to different degrees, what is today called post-traumatic stress disorder: nightmares, flashbacks, “jumpiness,” etc.
Among the three, the one who suffered the most severe symptoms was Ira Hayes – an Indian who continued to face racism back home despite his official “war hero” status. He became an alcoholic, was never able to hold down a job, and died at the age of 32. One of the other two, Rene Gagnon, also succumbed to alcoholism and worked low-paying jobs, always feeling betrayed by the government. John Bradley, who owned a funeral business and raised a family, suffered nightmares and anxiety attacks as a result of the horrible violence he witnessed as a young corpsman on Iwo Jima, and never wanted to talk about the war for the rest of his life.
In an interview, Eastwood said that he decided to make Letters from Iwo Jima when, in the process of making Flags of Our Fathers, he became familiar with the Japanese experience on the island. So he made the movie with a Japanese cast in the Japanese language.
It is hard not to be moved by this movie which shows, in a plain, down-to-earth way, the most basic reality of war: those who do the fighting on the other side are human beings just like us, most of whom didn’t choose to be there.
Did the Japanese government and military try to give their troops a false, racist image of American people and soldiers? Yes, just like the U.S. government and military did about “Japs.” Did the soldiers buy into it? Some did, just like on this side of the Pacific also. But just like here, on the other side also, there were soldiers who questioned their government’s propaganda. Even more so perhaps, since the Japanese understood the hopelessness of their situation: their navy already destroyed, the high command had sent 20,000 soldiers to Iwo Jima without any support from the sea or the air, to “die honorably for your country.”
Of the nearly 100,000 American troops who were sent to Iwo Jima, 7,000 were killed and 20,000 were wounded. On the Japanese side, only 1,000 survived.
When asked if he was trying to make an anti-war statement with these movies, Eastwood said that no movie that tries to show the reality of war can be pro-war. That is what makes these two movies so powerful.